In Pursuit of Happiness

Susan Dunnett, Kathy Hamilton

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


In Pursuit of Happiness

Susan Dunnett and Kathy Hamilton

Key words: happiness; consumer culture; well-being; introspection; visual analysis

Here we present the early findings from a pilot study of the burgeoning “happiness industry”. This area of the marketplace aims to increase individual and collective happiness through “how to” manuals, websites, apps, courses, exhibitions, films and media coverage (e.g.

Using the framework of “100 Happy Days” ( we conducted introspection and visual analysis of both researcher-generated and public photographic material (Holbrook, 2006). The concept of “100 Happy Days”, like many similar social media trends, frames the individual as ethnographer of their own lives, mining for meaning around the concept of happiness. Participants are asked to take a single photograph of something that has made them happy each day, for 100 days. Pictures can be shared on social media or remain private. The assumption is that this structured introspection is a therapeutic process of self-discovery and that the 100 pictures have a life beyond the 100 days, serving as a transformative repository to be dipped into to relive happy moments.

Our immersion in this context reveals several recurrent visual tropes (e.g. family and nature), with photographs suggesting that happiness is found in the mundane as well as the exotic, the novel as well as the constant. Common to many of the photographs is an attempt to depict emotions, most notably, love but also amusement, nostalgia, security and comfort. From a methodological perspective we consider the challenges of introspection, visual analysis and representing happiness. Given the subjective nature of happiness, challenges relate to the reading and analysis of images without a broader understanding of the context, suggesting that what is visible in the photograph is merely a symbolic indication of something deeper.

From a theoretical perspective, we first consider the position of consumer culture to the happiness agenda. Second, we discuss the pressure of positivity and drawing on Binkley’s (2014, p. 3) view of happiness as an “entrepreneurial project,” we highlight how the pursuit of happiness becomes a matter of individual agency. In particular, the need to draw upon and display happiness becomes paramount within the social media context. Under this structuring force - and the gaze of the generalised other (Mead, 1934) - happiness moves from felt emotion to a category of visual meaning, alongside a set of recurrent practices. Third, in relation to the shaping of a happiness discourse we explore the democratisation of happiness and the increased tendency to view happiness as a therapeutic care of the self (Hyman, 2014). Such discourses prioritise what should matter, how we should live and conduct our relationships, reinforcing that consumerism and the marketplace should not be seen as sources of happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Shankar et al, 2006). Yet our analysis suggests that this self-care emerges, and is depicted, through everyday consumption practices. Finally, we consider the notions of ambivalence or indifference and question if the images make us feel happiness when we revisit them i.e. are the therapeutic aims fulfilled?

With the aim of behavioural change at its heart, the happiness industry is one where issues of control, myth, and visual reproduction can be explored. Ultimately we aim to use this context to expand the existing conversation around emotion in consumer culture (cf Goulding et al. 2009; Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982; Shankar et al, 2006; St James et al, 2011), particularly focussing on issues of consumption and well-being.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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